It’s the end of the school year here in the South. My children came home this week with a stack of folders, as they do annually at this time. My youngest, who just wrapped up fourth grade, showed me her writing folder. As I was looking through it, I saw an essay she was assigned earlier this year, “My Favorite Teacher.” She chose to write about a teacher she had last year, and here’s part of what she wrote:
“The main reason why she is my favorite teacher is because she read to us. She didn't make us answer questions about them and write summaries. She just read to us. She didn't say she was going to read to us and then forget to the whole year like most teachers do. She read to us every day right after lunch. She would read us funny stories, stories she enjoyed, and even sad stories. Every day right after lunch you would lay down on the carpet and she would read to you.”
As an advocate myself of reading aloud to our students, I cheered this. So during this, the last week of school, I raise my glass of summer lemonade to that teacher – and to teachers this year who took the time to daily read to their students. There is a whole host of reasons why I’d want to thank them, but because my blog is called Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, I’ll name seven of them for you. (Gimmicky, I know. Humor me.)
1) Teachers who take as much time as they can grab, daily, to read to their students are giving them a much-needed break in the school day – a respite for their minds and bodies. We expect a lot from children in our environments of rigorous standardized testing. If we let them get comfortable, rest (note that my daughter’s class got to lie down on the carpet), and listen to a riveting narrative, they can re-charge their batteries. If the book is worth its salt, they will soak it in quietly.
2) The teacher who read aloud to my daughter last year might be the only person in the lives of some of her classmates who takes time to share a story with them. Some parents aren’t readers. Some have little to no books in the home. Some children aren’t regularly taken to the library. She, as the teacher, may be the sole reading role model for a student. And that’s a powerful thing. Because instilling in children a life-long habit of pleasure reading is absolutely the goal. Studies show time and time again that students who read and who are read aloud to perform better academically, and that’s a lovely side effect. But for children to find joy in it and want to do it the rest of their lives? To develop a love of stories and have it expand their minds and broaden their worlds? That’s the big pay-off.
3) The teacher who read to my daughter and her classmates shared a part of herself with them. It was a gift to them. It’s an intimate thing, to share a story with someone. I find, when I read to students (and my own children), that the stories we share engender conversations about life. Sometimes the best discussions pop up – about right and wrong, what it means to be a human, how we should treat each other on this planet. Not all conversations are so deep, mind you. Maybe we just laugh a lot. Either way, we learn an awful lot about each other in the process.
4) On that note, ever read Anna Dewdney’s wonderful 2013 speech from the Lifelong Learners Conference at the Cambridge Public Library? It’s posted here at the Horn Book’s site. Children, she noted, learn a great deal about empathy when reading and when having stories read to them. Here is part of what she said:
“When you read with a child, you are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language. You are doing a much more powerful thing, and it is something that we are losing, as a culture. By reading with a child, you are teaching that child to be human. When you open a book, and share your voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I will go further and say that that child learns to feel the world more deeply, and the child becomes more aware of himself and others in a way that he simply cannot experience except in your lap, or in your classroom, or in your reading circle.”
5) It’s fun. “Language is fun. Imagination is fun,” says Dewdney in the same speech. Storytelling and narrative satisfy a basic human need in us. We all tell stories; we all want to share them; we want to hear each other’s. Students appreciate teachers’ efforts to give them a moment of joy or humor or contemplation (remember, my daughter noted that her teacher read “even sad stories,” and that was okay with her and her classmates) or all of the above in an otherwise busy day. They don’t forget that.
6) They get to hear the English language at its best. This is something my former graduate school advisor used to point out often. The language in books, she would say, is so different from our spoken language. We speak in shorthand. We speak in broken phrases. We pepper what we say with “like” and “you know,” and, like, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, you know? But literary language, my teacher would say, in well-crafted books brings us all the possibilities that the English language offers: lyrical sentences, passages with evocative figure language that creates a new awareness in our worlds, short sentences with great impact, and much more. Remember how I noted above that your students will get quiet if they’re hearing a great book? This is one reason why. (As someone who was once the librarian at a school for the deaf, I’d be remiss if I didn’t clarify that the students may not be hearing, but instead may be seeing, a great book – in American Sign Language, that is. I also raise my lemonade to librarians fluent in ASL! Plus, story time in ASL, an inherently dramatic language, is the best—hands down. Excuse the pun.)
7) Did I mention above that students who are read aloud to do better in school? I did briefly note this. It’s true that this is a benefit, but I happen to think all the reasons above this one outweigh good grades, even if good grades are mighty helpful in life.
My favorite part of what my daughter wrote is that her third grade teacher kept her promise: She said she’d read to them all throughout the year, and she did. I know—believe me; I know from experience—how much teachers have on their plates. But I also know that students who are read aloud to will never, ever forget the stories their teacher lovingly shared with them. On Facebook this week, I noted that I am currently reading aloud Charlotte’s Web to my daughters. Author Lisa Yee came along to say, “I remember when my third grade teacher read this in class, a chapter a time. It was the best part of the day.”
She still, as a grown woman, remembers this gift.
And that pretty much covers it.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.